This article is part of a series of stories in The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning, a challenge paper from Carnegie Corporation of New York that explores how professional learning anchored in high-quality curriculum materials allows teachers to experience the instruction their students will receive and change their instructional practices, leading to better student outcomes.
When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools in North Carolina took a close look at reading instruction across the K-12 district a few years ago, what it found was far from ideal. The district had adopted rigorous academic standards in the early 2000s, but 76 percent of classes were still working below grade level. Instruction varied broadly from one classroom to the next, and achievement was suffering, particularly among students of color. Yet there seemed to be no shortage of energy or effort by district teachers, who reported spending 7–10 hours online every week searching for standards-aligned lessons and materials.
“There was just very little coherence across our district in terms of curriculum and equitable instructional practices,” said Brian Kingsley, chief academic officer. “And that was not an indictment of our teachers. We just simply didn’t provide for it.”
The district gathered an inclusive group of educators, leaders, students, families, and members of the broader community to discuss what was needed in a new language arts curriculum — one that was aligned to current standards, included educative materials, and would be joyful and relevant to students. As a result of that discussion, the district selected EL Education’s language arts curriculum, which combines sophisticated reading, writing, and discussion activities with civic-minded social-emotional learning and deep exploration of content themes. Instructional and school leaders committed to using the curriculum’s educative materials, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools contracted with EL Education to provide coaching and technical support for teachers. This was essential, as the new curriculum would affect not only what students learn and do but also the skills and understanding required of their teachers.
There was just very little coherence across our district in terms of curriculum and equitable instructional practices. And that was not an indictment of our teachers. We just simply didn’t provide for it.
Brian Kingsley, chief academic officer, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools
It was a welcome change for Principal Dianna Newman of Parkside Elementary School. A 22-year district veteran, she had opened Parkside in 2015 with staff coming from 10 different district schools. Teachers each had their own style, materials, and vision for instruction and student success, which often did not align with current academic standards.
“What seemed as though it was mastery for one person was not mastery for someone else,” Newman said. “We were Googling for days just trying to figure out viable lessons that were aligned to the curriculum and aligned to our standards and our assessments.... We really were shooting in the dark.”
For example, in 2019, Newman observed a fourth-grade reading lesson that was supposed to teach students to compare the main ideas of two texts. In practice, though, students were provided with short paragraphs and asked to name the main idea of each one, rather than reading complex passages side by side and identifying similarities in their main ideas. The fourth-graders were actually doing second-grade work.
“The kids didn’t have to write anything. They didn’t have to share their thinking,” Newman said. “There wasn’t really an in-depth process that the teacher took the kids through, and they certainly didn’t have to think very hard or very much to get to the correct response.”
In EL Education’s language arts curriculum, student work is organized into nine-week modules, each centered on a subject; in the early grades, these are kid-friendly topics, such as frogs or bird species. Daily lessons build students’ content knowledge and literacy skills and include recurring writing, reading, and discussion activities. The teacher’s role is to foster close reading, complex thinking, and deft expression in speaking and writing.
The district began with 2,500 teachers in the elementary grades, with a two-day launch event at the start of summer 2019 and additional grade-band meetings throughout the 2019–20 school year. Teachers were observed and coached by their principals, instructional leaders, and literacy coaches, who were studying the curriculum during regular community-of-practice meetings so that they could support ongoing professional learning. There were weekly phone calls between the district and the curriculum designer and optional virtual learning programs for school and instructional leaders. Early on, teachers’ shared planning time was used for studying the curriculum together.
EL Education’s professional learning is “built by design to mirror the pedagogical practices that are baked into the curriculum,” said Amy Bailey, the organization’s chief partnership officer. Instructional moves and strategies from the curriculum also lend structure to professional learning for teachers with features such as learning targets, “I can” statements, and opportunities for reflection. In learning sessions, teachers experience the same type of instruction they are expected to provide for their students.
“There are moments where you see a teacher is given a very complex text to read and analyze and think about and give a gist on, or follow a protocol, and they understand what it might feel like for a young student to be in a text that is really pushing them and is uncomfortable,” said Bailey. “At our best, we are able to create an experience for a teacher that allows them to deeply empathize with the experience their kids are going to have. Instead of answering their questions, we’ll say things like, ‘Great question — keep working with your group.’ It can be frustrating, but that’s where we see real learning and engagement in productive struggle.”
Changes like these are not easy to make. Teachers were being asked to stop using lesson plans they had worked hard to develop. And while the new curriculum’s instructional guides are highly detailed, with up to 14 pages of instructional support for a single lesson, the curriculum is far from easy to adopt. Classroom discussion flows from student discovery, so teachers cannot rely on a script. Instead, they must become expert facilitators and understand the underlying logic that guides each lesson to ensure that students progress toward appropriately challenging goals.
When Parkside’s teachers met to study upcoming lessons, they soon began rehearsing components of each lesson. Participating in the lesson, either as teacher or learner, was more valuable than simply discussing it; hands-on practice is a powerful way to learn. Teachers constantly make choices in the moment. They guide students’ experiences. By walking through activities together before engaging in them with students, teachers were prepared to impart a lesson’s essential takeaways no matter what direction the discussion took.
After a few months, Parkside was filled with evidence of teachers’ and students’ efforts. Throughout the building, classrooms and hallways were decorated with writing projects. A third-grade teacher who had been uncomfortable with group work was successfully facilitating student-led discussions. And teachers were comparing essays with those from past years and seeing a major difference in students’ sophistication of thought and self-expression.
“The shift was a difficult one for teachers,” said Newman. “But once teachers realized that there is value — that these curriculum materials are beautifully written, and my leaders and my administrators are willing to work alongside me to help me get where I need to go — I feel like they embraced it a lot more.”
How can we make professional learning work better for teachers and their students?
Discover essential guidance for transforming teaching and student learning by downloading The Elements: Transforming Teaching through Curriculum-Based Professional Learning.